Industry Survey: Hip-Hop Live Execs Reflect On 50 Years In the Game

Robert Gibbs
Robert Gibbs | Courtesy UTA

Up in the Bronx on Aug. 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc took the sounds of the day and had a party at a community center to create hip-hop. After 50 years, the legacy of the genre is stronger than ever.

College students mark time not by passing semesters, but by which inescapable rap song blasts from every dorm room on campus. Few music genres have this level of impact. Darryll Brooks (who worked with pioneers Grandmaster Flash, Parliament Funkadelic, Run DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J and more), Kevin Shivers (who saw Run DMC, Whodini and LL Cool J onstage as a child and decided working in hip-hop is where he needed to be) and Cara Lewis (who has represented many of hip-hop’s foremost artists, including recent Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer Eminem) are but a few of the executives weighing in on hip-hop’s 50th.

The execs discuss the discrimination that continues to put up barriers for new artists trying to pave their way in the industry, while looking toward the future with the evolution of Web3 and holographic performances. They also share the moments they fell in love with the music and the reasons they think it’s lasted so long. And, of course, they share what artists the rest of us need to keep an eye on.

Akin Aliu
Music Touring Agent, CAA

Darryll Brooks
Co-owner of C D Enterprises Inc. 

Mike G
Partner & Music Agent, UTA

Shawn Gee
President, Live Nation Urban

Robert Gibbs
Partner and Co-Head of UTA Atlanta

Joe Harris
Music Touring Agent, CAA

Chris Jordan
Music Agent

Cara Lewis
Founder of Cara Lewis Group

Kevin Shivers
Co-Head of Hip-Hop and R&B, WME

Caroline Yim
Co-Head of Hip-Hop and R&B, WME

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Darryll Brooks | Courtesy Darryll Brooks

On its 50th anniversary, hip-hop has gone from street parties, parks and clubs, to festivals, amphitheaters, arenas and stadiums across the globe. What do you attribute hip-hop’s massive and enduring success to?

Darryll Brooks: The freedom of expression, releasing frustration through spoken word, graffiti, breakdancing, and rhyming to the beats over recorded music and drum beats. Now, in modern times, this has gotten more sophisticated with the digital era, where you can pass your message on much faster, communicate more elaborately and tell your story or your point of view. It has gone from neighborhood to neighborhood, state to state, to now countries all over the world.

Mike G: Since the birth of hip-hop in New York in the 1970s, the genre has grown to include more unique styles and expanded worldwide — from gangsta rap, east coast hip-hop and west coast g-funk styles, to today’s trap and mumble-rap genres, the sound continues to evolve. In the ‘90s, hip-hop was the most significant genre in terms of sales, and now, streaming platforms have provided artists with an even larger global platform. As the sound continues to evolve, we will continue to celebrate the stars of past and present eras. 

Shawn Gee: Hip-hop is the voice of the youth, and young people and young energy is what drives culture. Those original ‘70s and ‘80s pioneers and their fans are now 50-60 years old, so hip-hop is now also a multi-generational music genre with its tentacles in all areas of music, art, culture, business, tech, finance, etc. Hip-hop has become pop culture. However, the key to its success is the regeneration of its youthful energy for a new group of kids every few years. The kids of today feel just as strongly about NBA YoungBoy, Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert as we did about LL Cool J and Rakim, and that is the key to sustaining this for generations to come, engaging and energizing that youthful connection.

Robert Gibbs: The people. This is one of the only genres of music that’s truly global — it brings all races and walks of life together, defines culture and influences what’s next. 

Joe Harris: The success of hip-hop over the last 50 years can be attributed to the genre’s ever-evolving sound. Hip-hop is always incorporating new sounds and elements. Also, since its conception, hip-hop spoke to real issues that effected real people and, in some ways, it was an escape. The music became a lifestyle and a way for people to express themselves, but also an opportunity to change their financial situation. Hip-hop was and continues to be accessible with a much lower barrier to entry than other genres of music, while still being an artform that requires skill.

Chris Jordan: Hip-hop is synonymous with culture. Wherever you look, hip-hop has significant influence in the way of the world, from the way people dress to media trends and certain dialects. With such a massive effect on the world at large, it is no question the genre has sustained enduring success.

Cara Lewis: The music, first and foremost. The driving force of key people who have brought this to the forefront. I, for one, spent many years of my career supporting and lending whatever necessary to build and grow the touring business from clubs to festivals, arenas, stadiums worldwide and to strategically contribute to the longevity and success of the genre. Hip-hop is a reflection of expression. It reflects the dreams, hopes and frustrations of youth that found a way to communicate through music, the arts and fashion. This form of music continues to reinvent and is why 50 years later and, in the words of Erykah Badu, “Hip-hop is bigger than the government and bigger than religion” continues to stand true.

Kevin Shivers: Hip-hop was always more than the music. The music speaks to you but it also builds your life and stays with you forever. There’s something different about hip-hop that has allowed it to dominate the culture.

Caroline Yim: The artists are what make hip-hop so successful. Every artist in the past 50 years has shaped the next generation in some way. They are the visionaries, trendsetters, the tastemakers, and the people who move the culture forward. Hip-hop artists have always been two steps ahead of everything and they are the main reason why hip-hop will continue to succeed and have a global presence. 

What’s your favorite live hip-hop performance of all time?

Cara Lewis 0075e1 1
Cara Lewis | Courtesy Cara Lewis Group

Aliu: Kendrick Lamar’s “Big Steppers” tour. Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s “On The Run” tour is up there, too. Hard to choose!

Brooks:I guess for me it starts with The Sugarhill Gang and Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five who were opening acts on some of my tours with Parliament Funkadelic and the Commodores. At the time I think one of the funniest was Kurtis Blow doing three shows in one day. Early show in one city, afternoon show in another, they flying him to a festival in another. The most exciting was “The Raisin’ Hell Tour” with Run DMC, Whodini and LL Cool J, or the Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise Tour.” But then it could’ve been Heavy D’s “Slamin ‘88 Tour” or maybe the Salt-N-Pepa tour. I don’t know, I’ve done a lot of them since the beginning.

Mike G: Super Bowl 56 and Eminem’s Grammy performance featuring Elton John were two iconic moments. 

Gee: I have been blessed to work with so many amazing live performers, produce many huge arena tours and festivals. There are so many festivals that have been great. I can’t rank them, but a few of my all-time favorites include: The Roots at Radio City Music Hall in 2006, this was the first time the Roots headlined Radio City and they did two nights. Night one was special as they had Nas, Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli as guests. “Glow In The Dark” tour with Kanye West in 2008, I was part of Kanye’s management team at the time and helped produce this tour. So many of us were all managing and producing our first arena tour together, and Kanye’s creativity challenged and pushed us all to think bigger and better. The tour had Rihanna, Lupe Fiasco and N.E.R.D. as support. Fresh Fest at Spectrum in Philadelphia in the ‘80s, this was my first live show I ever attended as a kid and it had Run DMC, LL Cool J and Whodini. It literally changed my life.

Gibbs:“Watch The Throne” tour in 2011-2012.

Jordan: My favorite performance would have to be my first hip-hop concert, which was the radio show, Powerhouse, in the early 2000s. The show was headlined by Westside Connection and LL Cool J, and I remember seeing Nelly and Ja Rule on that same bill in addition to a couple of new acts. From that show forward, I was hooked. 

Lewis: I would say Run-DMC being my first hip-hop headline arena tour. It was also one of the first acts to carry production and spun off headliners like LL Cool J and Beastie Boys who were the opening acts. It felt like a magnitude 10 earthquake when they performed their massive hit “My Adidas” and set the bar high for acts and tours that would follow. Below is a list of some of the artists that helped break down doors from the early days to the generations of superstars that I have been fortunate to represent, many with groundbreaking and historical shows: A Tribe Called Quest, Audio Two, Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Black Eyes Peas, Boogie Down Productions, Busta Rhymes, Chubb Rock, Common, Cypress Hill, Dr. Dre, Digital Underground, EPMD, Easy E, NWA, Eminem, Eric B + Rakim, Erykah Badu, Fugees, Gang Starr, JJ Fad, Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, 50 Cent, Just Ice, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, Ice T, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Ludacris, Lupe Fiasco, MC Lyte, Nas, N.E.R.D., Newcleus, Outkast, Paris, Public Enemy, Pusha T, Run DMC, Special Ed, The DOC, The Pharcyde, Queen Latifah, Stetsasonic, Travis Scott, Tupac Shakur, UTFO, Whodini, Yoyo.

Shivers: Jay-Z at Glastonbury.

Yim: So many to pick from. Some of my best memories include The Roots at the Universal Amphitheater in 1999, Outkast at the House of Blues Sunset Strip in 2000, the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour at Irvine Meadows in 2002 with Jay-Z and N.E.R.D. And most recently watching the Super Bowl Halftime Show with Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Kendrick, Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent gave me so much life!

Hip-Hop has historically faced discrimination, with some unwilling to work with the genre. Do you believe the situation has improved? Do you still see discrimination?

Mike G 2022 Current26
Mike G’s portrait at UTA Offices on Wednesday, August 10, 2022 in Beverly Hills, CA (photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Aliu:I think it has improved a bit and that’s due to the overwhelming demand to see hip-hop artists. Oftentimes, when you hear a big pop remix it has a feature from a big hip-hop act. The world knows if you want to make a hot record, you need a little hip-hop. Nas once said, “a little advice, always add spice.” Also, some of the improvements are a result of the diminishing power of traditional gatekeepers — radio programmers, A&Rs, traditional media. Streaming and social media allow for artists to build their fanbases without these institutions. Artists can connect directly to fans using these tools and they can force these legacy companies to engage with them based on certain metrics or they risk missing out on opportunities to make money. I do think there are still lots of discriminatory hurdles we still have to jump over. Some corporate entities are very hesitant to deal with artists that have tough pasts, and that’s without understanding where they’ve come from and what they had to go through to be successful. All of these artists just want to provide for their families and do the right thing and sometimes they don’t get that opportunity. 

Brooks: The answer is yes, I still see discrimination. But now more sophisticated depending upon where you are and basically from an economic standpoint.

Mike G: The situation is gradually improving. From a live standpoint, promoters have embraced the power of hip-hop. On the other side, what Harvey Mason Jr. did for the 2023 Grammys show me the Recording Academy is in great hands. The events that led to this year’s festivities were a genuinely defining moment for hip-hop and the future of hip-hop. 

Gee: There is discrimination in society and hip-hop is a microcosm of society, so yes, it definitely still exists. However, the main difference is now as a driver of pop culture, the economics are different and gatekeepers are forced to think differently because everyone realizes the overall economic impact of hip-hop. But yes, there is still discriminatory bias.

Gibbs: From a live standpoint, it has improved. Artists are playing shows in both secondary and tertiary markets globally, and in places you wouldn’t expect. This was not the case 15 years ago, where they mainly played in major cities in the U.S. and sometimes the UK only. But there is still room for improvement — some venue rules are still set differently before or around the production of a hip-hop show versus other genres. 

Jordan: I believe hip-hop has seen discrimination in various ways. Although this has been an ongoing issue, I do think things are getting better. With executives like myself having a real point of view and voice, we will continue to push the envelope and help reduce discrimination.

Lewis: There were only a few promoters in the beginning that were promoting this genre. It was an underground thing and you were either: 1. Part of the discovery and understood what it stood for, 2. Afraid of what you didn’t know or understand or 3. Uninterested because you didn’t think it would have staying power and didn’t want to make that investment. Not until it became truly mainstream did big companies look to be in it for the long haul.

Shivers: Of course. There has been a lot of improvement, but hip-hop artists still have to prove their viability in the business more than artists in other genres.

Yim: It has improved but the industry needs to be better and continue unpacking biases. Hip-hop artists and collectives need to be treated fairly and as equally as their contemporaries by the industry.

What’s your read on hip-hop’s reach today in terms of its market share, festivals and international markets?

Chris Jordan
Chris Jordan | Courtesy UTA

Brooks: I believe through social media and the underground, right now it’s unstoppable. And at the moment there’s no boundaries. Hip-Hop is doing pop, country, gospel and classical, etc.

Mike G: The genre has exploded in the live space. Rolling Loud Miami became the Woodstock of rap music in the past five years. It’s led to various Rolling Loud festivals around North America and globally in markets like Portugal, Thailand, Rotterdam and Germany. Additionally, festivals like Wireless, Splash and Longitude will continue to imprint the genre across Europe. The live market for hip-hop is a massive business that will continue to grow.

Gee: Hip-hop influences everything. 

Gibbs: Hip-hop continues to be the global leader through streams, consumption and more.

Harris: Hip-hop is such a massive and impactful genre because there are so many forms and subgenres in this category. The sound has influenced cultures and international markets worldwide. Most, if not all, of your favorite festivals has at least one hip-hop headliner, and the hip-hop specific festivals across the world are the most sought-after tickets out of all the festivals. 

Jordan: I believe that hip-hop still has a dominant market share in 2023. If you look at the top half of almost any festival roster, you will see hip-hop acts playing top slots. Additionally, I feel like the hip-hop tour market share has increasingly grown as artists are becoming more interested in building long-term hard ticket businesses.

Lewis: Hip-hop is pop culture. It dominates due to the wide demographic, fan loyalty, ability to sell tickets and generate huge grosses. It is also a genre of music that can headline and package with all other genres such as R&B, pop, rock and country music. 

Shivers: Hip-hop has a strong reach globally, all you have to do is look at the streaming numbers. The festival bills continue to show that hip-hop is an unstoppable force around the world.

Yim: U.S. festivals have already started integrating way more hip-hop acts and now there are more all-hip-hop festivals like Rolling Loud which is expanding across the globe. Hip-hop festivals have incredible potential as they expand to other territories such as Africa and Asia, so I expect a lot of growth in the international market in the next 10 to 15 years.

With hip-hop appearing at the highest echelons of the live industry, as well as in AI, immersive experiences and holograms, what do you see for the future of hip-hop?

Brooks: Nobody knows. I wish I knew.

Gee: Hip-hop is here forever. It will grow and evolve along with the evolution of technology and consumer engagement behaviors. As long as its genesis doesn’t change, which is a direct emotional connection with the youth, this genre of music and culture will be here forever.

Gibbs: I hope the industry does not lose sight of how important artist development is. I expect that is starting to go away with how much music is being put out to push streams, and there is not enough focus around developing a strong show to build a loyal fan. However, if we continue to focus on proper artist development, then there is no stopping hip-hop music. 

Harris: It’s going to be fun to see the future of hip-hop play out and advance culture, technology and brand images as it has done for the past 50 years. Lil Nas X, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, etc., all have helped launch major platforms in the metaverse. Tupac even performed via hologram at Coachella one year. Hard to say what the future of hip-hop will be when it’s always been the future.

Jordan: The future of hip-hop looks promising. I feel like artists are going to continue to push their creativity and cross into other genres more frequently. I anticipate hip-hop becoming an even more dominant global genre with its market share continuing to grow for years to come.

Lewis: There is nothing that compares to a live performance. Production elements created by the artist along with their designers are what delivers that immersive experience that brings fans into the artist’s universe.

Yim: I think you’re going to see even more ventures and businesses pop up within the hip-hop community. Hip-hop artists are the trendsetters, they will be the ones creating the next wave of innovative businesses that expand outside of music.

What upcoming hip-hop artist should we keep an eye out for?

Mike G: Lakeyah (QC’s artist).

Jordan: There are too many great ones to list!

Lewis: BIA, Coi Leray, GloRilla and Ice Spice, the next generation of the Hottest Fierce Females in the game!

Shivers: Breland.

Yim: Doechii and Lola Brooke.